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The value of nonviolence

Classes, gathering celebrate Mahatma Gandhi

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He was a skinny, bald guy whose words would have been drowned out amid artillery fire. Yet the voice of Mohandas Gandhi is heard loud and clear in Utah classrooms in 2003.

Gandhi, who came to be known as Mahatma, or "great-souled one," is to be celebrated this Sunday with a tree-planting and award-bestowing ceremony at Jordan Park in Salt Lake City. It's a party honoring the 134th anniversary of his birth on Oct. 2 — and it's part of a statewide effort to teach children and teens about nonviolent victories around the world.

Gandhi taught that "peace and nonviolence are two different things: Nonviolence is proactive, and it is a force that can be used for change in the world," said Nancy Hedrick, an East High School geography teacher.

Three years ago, with other members of the Gandhi Alliance for Peace, she designed a state-approved school curriculum on nonviolence.

Bringing ideas into Utah classrooms "has been a really fun experience," said Hedrick, who has been teaching since 1969.

"We don't want to make (the curriculum) a political thing," she added. Instead, it's "a different approach to solving problems."

Hedrick and her students first explore Gandhi's philosophies, and then look at how they're applicable in today's world. Taking the teenagers into one region after another, she shows how nonviolent conflict resolution has worked.

It worked in Denmark when the people went on strike to rout the Nazis; it worked in South Africa's fight to end apartheid; and it worked in the U.S. civil rights movement. "A Force More Powerful," a public-television program about those events, is among the illustrative materials used in the nonviolence curriculum.

For Hedrick's students whose family members are fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq, the discussion of conflict resolution is no theoretical exercise. They see that "long-term, if Iraq is going to be a successful country, there's going to have to be some kind of nonviolent agenda there," Hedrick said.

Gandhi was a Hindu, but his philosophies stretch across geographical and religious lines, she added. The Polish solidarity movement, another example of nonviolent protest that ended an oppressive regime, was led by Catholics. One was Karol Wojtyla, now Pope John Paul II. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist preacher. And the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist, is traveling across the United States this month, asking Americans to reconsider their approach to conflict.

An estimated 65,000 people cheered when the Dalai Lama said, "The very concept of war is out of date . . . destruction of your neighbor as an enemy is essentially a destruction of yourself," according to a Sept. 22 New York Times report on the Dalai Lama's address in Central Park.

That message resonates with Salt Lake Gandhi Alliance member Deb Sawyer. So does the concept of connection among the peoples of the world. For a local example: the Dalai Lama's niece, Khando Chazotsang, resides in Sandy and helped develop the curriculum on nonviolence.

Sawyer said that Sunday's celebration of Gandhi "is a time to reflect and question how we are going to approach the challenges in our lives," on the neighborhood and national levels. The road to nonviolent resolution, she added, is built on respect for others, even amid intense disagreement.

For example, Sawyer wants President Bush to change his "war on terror" policies, but she doesn't see him as an adversary who must be eliminated. "The challenge is to respond to the problem without making him the enemy," she said. "I have trouble with activists who see him as that."

To expand on such ideas, the curriculum on nonviolence uses William Ure's book, "The Third Side." From family conflicts on up to international strife, a "third side," a diplomatic liaison, can defuse or avert violence. This non-threatening person or group, Hedrick said, helps the others talk out their issues. "Ure gives great examples, really concrete techniques," she added, that work for the teachers using the curriculum in Utah schools.

Hedrick has presented the curriculum in teacher workshops in Salt Lake City, Murray, Heber City and Brigham City. She and Sawyer hope to hold the next one in Moab, since teachers have devoured the workshop's lesson plans. Students are hungry too, Hedrick said. Along with her classes at East High, she has taught Gandhi's philosophies at Stillwater Academy, a lockdown facility for troubled high school students. "They loved it. They found it challenging, and they found it opened their eyes to new ways of looking at the world and solving problems." Seeing how nonviolent resistance worked elsewhere, Hedrick added, taught the teenagers "how to look at their own situations differently."

We might not make world peace this year, Hedrick acknowledged. But small steps on the local level add up to progress. That's what Sunday's party is about. In her keynote speech, Hedrick will remind Salt Lake peace activists that their predecessors weren't immune to despair — but they kept working. By talking and teaching about nonviolence, "you plant a seed here and there, and hope it takes root."

"We shouldn't get overwhelmed with what's going on," Hedrick added. "This is an overwhelming time that we live in, but it has been ever thus. Gandhi lived in an overwhelming time," as did Martin Luther King, Poland's Lech Walesa and South Africa's Nelson Mandela.

Sunday's event will include Christian and Muslim prayers, Hindu devotional songs and a tree planting. Hedrick will receive a Gandhi peace award, as will Pat Gamble-Hovey, a Salt Lake pastoral counselor and social worker; and Forrest C. Crawford, a Weber State University professor and advocate for minorities in higher education.

"This has been a difficult year," Sawyer said. Along with her public work with the Gandhi alliance, Sawyer looks for private ways to re-energize.

"I have five things I'm determined to do, just to nurture me: I meditate; I do yoga; I write 'morning pages,' which is journaling; I sit at the piano to compose; and I go on walks or hikes," she said.

Other Gandhi Alliance members will take part in another demonstration Sunday morning, in the annual Run for Peace from Saltair to Jordan Park. Organizer Richard Wagner said the event is a kind of salt march in miniature, inspired by Gandhi's long walks in protest of the British tax on India's salt. The marches were a nonviolent way to resist oppression and exercise individual freedom.

Similarly, Wagner will run this Sunday to celebrate his own liberties as an American. "I'm living with the idea of 'use it or lose it,' " he said. "If I don't use my rights as a citizen, I may lose them. It's important to exercise the freedom of expression that makes America one of the greatest countries of the world." To Wagner, the right to speak out without fear of retribution, not our military might, is worth celebrating. So, he said, is the diversity of religion that has flourished in America. On Sunday he and a few of his cohorts will wear unbleached, loose cotton garments over their shirts and shorts, in honor of the spiritual leaders who wore similar clothing. They will be seen running along the frontage road from Saltair to 5300 West, then along 700 South, dressed much like Gandhi, Jesus and the Dalai Lama.

E-MAIL: durbani@desnews.com